1999 Readers Poll
1999 Critics Picks
Best Cheap Date With The Kids

From the soft and cushy playscape of Kids Kingdom to a terrific (non-leagued-out) bowling alley, from the smooth new skating rink to in-house movie theatre, there is an activity here to please every age group. They even have a state-of-the-art arcade equipped with the hottest (non-gun-toting) video games. Play until you poop out, then seek sustenance at the food court. At prices that hearken back to an earlier era, the Millennium Youth Complex is a great place to spend a rainy day or escape the heat.

Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex
1156 Hargrave

Best Children's Book Author

Reputed author of the Wayside School and Marvin Redpost series of children's books, this Austin writer has fans - young and not-so-young - across the globe. His book Holes won the prestigious Newbery Award last February. The story that struck gold for Sachar is about a boy wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to digging a new hole every day under the hot Texas sun.

Louis Sachar

Best Daytime In Town Getaway

This is the little engine that can. The Zephyr, Zilker Park's tyke-sized train, departs every hour (10 or 11am until 5 or 6pm), providing a relaxing toot around the park. Check out the soccer games, the hikers and bikers on the trail, and the lush greenery on the banks of Town Lake. It's a neat little getaway from the day's grind for riders of all ages.

Zilker Park
2100 Barton Springs Rd.

Best Daytime Out Of Town Getaway

The great state of Texas is home to the most highly regarded water theme park in the nation. Suitable for any age from three to 83, it's simply fantastic for kids. While moderate swimming ability is a plus, lifejackets are available at no charge. There are 65 acres of rides in all. We like the Black Knight: short lines, a dark tunnel, and fast! Prices range $15-26 for a day's admission. We like the half-day ticket - it's cheaper and still gives the kids plenty of exercise. Open daily from 10am to 8pm, but only during the late spring and summer. Check the Web site for full schedule details. Also check out the onsite resort. Rooms start at $90 a night.

381 E. Austin St., New Braunfels, 830/625-2351
33261 State Park Road 100, South Padre Island, 956/772-7873
2026 Lockheed, Galveston, 409/770-9283
14353 S. Padre Island Dr., Corpus Christi

Best Excuse To Get To The Library

She can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile, and take an ordinary library storage room and transform it into a magical place filled with songs and stories and clapping and capering and sometimes even arts and crafts. For the past 13 years, Ms. Kim, as she is known to children all about town, has been practicing her craft and brightening our world. She can be found at the Twin Oaks Library on Thursday mornings.

Best Fun Dip Into Environmental Awareness

There's not much that will coax us out of the clear, cool water of the springs on a hot afternoon. But the call of nature forced us out, and renovations of the facilities necessitated a trip out front, where we stumbled upon this interactive cave of aquifer information. There's an intro movie which gives us the lowdown on the Hill Country aquifer that gives birth to Barton Springs. Then you snake through the cave to get to the games. Pilot a mini-submarine through the aquifer to discover the source of fecal contamination! Test the water quality of area creeks. Your experiment comes complete with light and sound effects! We became so mesmerized that we almost forgot to return to the pool.

Barton Springs Pool
2131 William Barton Dr.

David Brendan Hall

Best Introduction To Culture With A Capital K

Attending a Ballet Austin production is a complete Special Event, the kind that remains seared in a child's mind for months or years thereafter. You go to the cavernous and grand Bass Concert Hall, you get to hear the symphony and see a genuine conductor take the podium, and then you are treated to a ballet of truly commendable proportions. It has almost all the grandeur of the Lincoln Center, and besides, in that NYC venue you aren't likely to catch Asleep at the Wheel or the Squirrel Nut Zippers taking turns from the maestro to accompany the dancers.

Best Kids' Music Camp

They all winced when we announced that our nine-year-old pianist was going to a summer chamber music camp. Okay, so we, too, had a few reservations: a fourth-grader swapping swimsuit for tails and baseball for Beethoven? Turned out to be a musical bird's nest on the ground: two weeks of age-appropriate music-making heaven. Lots of P.D.Q. Bach, large and small ensembles, terrific kid-friendly performers brought in daily - and Feldenkrais. Encore!

Austin Chamber Music Center
7600 Burnet Rd., Ste. 190

Best Place For First Steps

Built around ponds to collect runoff for pollution and flood control from the 173-acre Central Market residential and retail complex, but the 39-acre park is a tranquil setting with a smooth 5/8-mile trail that provides no problem for beginning footsteps. There are lots of ducks and wildlife, a picnic area, the playscape behind the grocery store, and the deck at the cafe. Enter from the Guadalupe parking lot or the retail stores on the Lamar side.

Best Place For The Munchies After Curfew

Around 12 o'clock on any weekend night you can usually spot throngs of teens milling about at one of the many "Cabana" locations throughout the city, licking their wounds from that busted party or having one last get-together before curfew. Best thing about it is that Cabana's open 24-7 and serves good, fast Mexican food, sure to satisfy the "unpredictable" appetite of our city's youth. Who would've ever guessed that hot pink neon and palm trees would represent a kid's oasis?

Taco Cabana
various locations

Best Place To Cuddle With Big Cats

Our own pint-sized Hill Country zoo has always had charm to spare, but the recent acquisition of a pair of Siberian tigers and a male African lion provide an opportunity to observe these magnificent creatures in an unusually intimate setting. These rescued former pets are declawed, and while they maintain their massive strength, their keepers are comfortable petting and scratching them like the big kitties they are. The tiger siblings engage in wrestling matches that leaves our jaws slack as we witness what makes that "Thud!" when they hit the ground.

Austin Zoo
10808 Rawhide Trl.

Best Place To Find Santa, The real Santa

There is no doubt about it. This guy is the real thing: white fluffy beard, joyful, smiling face, big round belly, generous helpful spirit, and a red hat, too, but of course, he only sports that around the holidays. Norman Sharp is at his shop all year long making keys and selling locks and getting folks out of various jams. Hey, Santa can't just make toys all year long. He's in the Golden Slipper Village. (Where else would Santa make his Southern workshop?) So next December, or anytime you need to buy a lock and key, swing by and say hello. He'll give you a "HO HO HO" like you haven't heard since your childhood.

Sharps Locksmith
507 W. Mary

Devaki Knowles

Best Place To Get Kids Arty

A visit to the recent "Queen of My Rooms" exhibit at AMOA led us, naturally, into the gift shop; we left a few bucks lighter but happier. There are more traditional kids' gifts, like toys, T-shirts, and books, but encourage the collecting of art postcards - artist Julie Speed's will no doubt spark interesting dialogue about the number of eyes a person can have.

The Contemporary Austin at Laguna Gloria
3809 W. 35th

Best Place To Indulge The Little Shopper

These places are pricey, to be sure, but there's not an Oshkosh or Carter's item in sight. The clothing is high-end, highly original, and highly desirable. Animal prints, tulle, organza, marabou, velvet, and vintage fabrics are some of the main materials. A simply wonderful place to treat a special child to something fabulous, or impress a mother-to-be with your giftedness.

Wild Child & Wild Child, Too
1601 W. 38th St.

Best Place To Wash Your Car

Remember the fundraising efforts you and your cohorts took on to get shekels for a special trip, new uniforms, or a hayride? Now it's our turn to play adult, point out dirty spots and water streaks, and tip big. Scout troops, debate teams, cheerleaders earning for camp - they often set up on weekends in parking lots on Burnet, S. Lamar, and MLK. Hey, entrepreneurial teens, in time-honored tradition, sell us homemade lemonade and cookies while we wait! We can't resist such sentimentality. Good luck!

Best Playground That Isn't

Kids like airplanes. Bergstrom has lots of airplanes, and unlike Mueller, you can go there without losing your mind, and you can go anytime, and you only have to pay for parking. Kids also like farms. Boggy Creek Farm - a real farm in the heart of the city - has chickens and tractors and friendly farmers, and while you can only go Wednesday and Saturday mornings, you only have to pay for the produce you buy. Which, after you see and taste it, will seem like a great deal.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
3600 Presidential

Boggy Creek Farm
3414 Lyons

Best Quarter Masters

Two dimes and a nickel? They've mastered it. Three nickels and a dime? Mastered it. Four nickels and five pennies? Mastered. Any combination that adds up to two bits, these guys have mastered it. They can change it for a solid quarter so you can try to master some of the dozens of videos and pinballs at this Drag institution, which has been in the same location for nearly 25 years.

Best Quick Furry Fix

When we've been hit with the "I'm in an animal mood today" declaration from the young one, we head out to Zilker Park and get a load of the wildlife at the Nature Center. The residents are like friends now - the albino raccoon, the barn owls, the snakes - and the trails and pond provide a retreat from the urban scene. We've petted a variety of snakes and furry creatures, too. And while we can't always provide a complete Bambi experience for our young animal enthusiasts, this asylum comes pretty close.

Austin Nature & Science Center
301 Nature Center Dr.

Best Secret Playgrounds

McBeth is the obvious alternative to the Zilker anthill, and because it's primarily designed for children with disabilities, it's probably the safest playscape you'll ever see. The Town Lake Trail playscape is no great shakes equipment-wise, but the setting can't be beat (though it could use some more shade), and it makes a good destination for kids who would otherwise lack patience for a nice walk along the lake.

Best Slide Back In Time

There it is like a relic from days gone by, shining in the sun just beckoning all passersby: the biggest, baddest, slide in town. It is fast and so, so high. To enhance its luster, its beauty, its speed, it is constructed completely of metal and nothing else. And to protect innocent tushes from the hot sun, it is shaded by the limbs of a big oak tree. Climb it if you can. Slide it if you dare.

Boys & Girls Club of Austin & Travis Co.
900 Neal, 512/444-7199
211 W. Johanna, 512/444-6369

Photo by John Anderson

Best Social Skills Clinic

We have yet to see a young child come to the Children's Museum and fail to make a beeline for the little train set in the lobby. We cannot count how many times we've heard, or said, "Don't you want to see anything else?" But really, we don't mind, because we want our children to Play Well With Others, and anyone who wants to learn problem-solving or negotiation skills should observe a bunch of three- and four-year-olds haggling over who gets to play with the black engine.

1830 Simond

Best Summer Day Camp

Pudgy bunny, pudding drop, Sea World, Fiesta Texas. The summer counselors work hard and play hard to show kids a good time at this day camp in Hyde Park. But even through the school year, each day is chock-full of crafts, games, or just run-around craziness, and the best part is that the staffers are out there in the middle of it all. Shaving cream in the eye or pudding in the ear - it's just part of the job, they'll tell you. But don't worry, moms, they find time each day to read to the kids too. And twice a week, they all walk to Shipe for a dip in the pool, a rather unusual trip in a city whose expanding boundaries hardly allow for much strolling anymore. The kids love it, we're told.

Hancock Recreation Center
811 E. 41st

Best Toy Store With The Most Hopeful/Boastful Name

Like our other favorite locally owned toy store, Over the Rainbow, this store sells good and wholesome toys, not just stuff that's a marketing extension of kids' TV shows. But every day Kid Genius also hosts a myriad of activities for children, too - from weekly infant play dates to preschool art sessions, story hours, and live music. Most events are free (or very cheap), making Kid Genius an economical destination as well.

Kid Genius
1400 S. Congress Ste. B-150

Most Adventurous Baby Stroller Ride

You may not know it, but your youngster is bored with the same old views from the stroller cockpit. Secretly your little one is pleading to go anywhere but another mall or plebian walk down the street. So treat your progeny, and yourself, to a unique Austin outdoor activity: disc golf. The city is blessed with many scenic disc courses where golf is played with Frisbee discs instead of little white balls. Rivers, cedar forests, vistas, all with laid-back people. Bonus? They're all free!

Disk Golf / Disc Golf

Most Eclectic Kids' Commercial Television

Adults who don't get the appeal of the wildly popular Pokémon games certainly won't be tuning to KVC-13 for the cartoon show of the same name, but you can bet the kids are. The station's afternoon programming features standard kids' fare of shows such as RoboCop, Spiderman, The New Addams Family, and the ever present Power Rangers - except Mondays. On Monday, the Power Rangers are replaced by Mystic Knights of the Tir Na nOg, a live-action adventure series filmed in Ireland. Although the show takes a few contemporary liberties and sometimes veers into Darby O'Gill turf, its dedication of Irish legends gets the thumbs-up from the local Gaelic League, not to mention the gorgeous scenery.

KVC 13
119 E. 10th

Most Sane Mall Experience

Used to be, folks were nostalgic for downtowns and main streets and friendly clerks at corner stores. Nowadays, with cultural trends folding over on themselves faster than breeding rabbits, there's a shift toward mall nostalgia. Yes, mall nostalgia. Small malls, human-sized indoor shopping havens, home of mall walkers and easy-to-traverse shops, went out of style with A Flock of Seagulls. For almost two decades now, huge monolithic mega-malls are most towns' main shopping option. Makes a mall like Northcross look cozy by comparison. With an ice skating rink, movie theatre, small shops like Gamefellas and Lammes Candies, reliable old anchors like Oshman's and Beall's, plus new tenant the Guitar Center (opening March 2000), and one of the funkiest food courts around, Northcross is a great neighborhood mall - a great place to shop in calm comfort, and great place to let the kids hang out with their pals.

Northcross Mall
2525 W. Anderson, 512/451-7466
LAN's Edge, 2525 W. Anderson Ln., 512/275-0761

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